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By Andrew Vachss

Pantheon Books, Random House, 2012 ($25.95)

ISBN-13: 978-0-307-37994-8
Kindle eBook: ($12.99)

Reviewed by Sam Waas

Writing a crime novel from the viewpoint of the criminal, especially if he's a murderer, can be tricky. Too much sympathy and he's a martyr. Too rough a customer, and there is no emotional linkage to the reader that can carry the narrative.

Andrew Vachss embarks upon this difficult task in THAT'S HOW I ROLL, in a first-person account of a man soon to receive "the drip" for his hired murders. Esau Till has specialized in bombs throughout his "career" but is also adept with firearms and other methods. Writing from Death Row, Esau looks back at his origins, trying to provide if not justification, at least an explanation for his life decisions.

Esau's roots are rural and dangerous, raised by a drunken, vicious father whom he labels the "Beast" and from an apparently incestuous sister/mother, uncaring and nearly as brutal as the father. Esau is born with spina bifida and is wheelchair bound yet must offer whatever protection possible to his younger brother Tory-boy, slow-witted but physically strong. As children, both siblings are victims of abuse, and it's no wonder that Esau grows up with darkness in his soul.

Esau's mind is however sharp, touted as a genius, and he's encouraged to learn by a caring schoolteacher who nurtures Esau's limited education as best she can. Esau takes upon himself the task of rearing his brother, helping him overcome much of his limited mental abilities and finding a niche in their hardscrabble life together. Soon they are living alone, Esau the bread-winner.

Esau becomes an operative in two rival local crime syndicates who've carved an uneasy truce to rule over a semi-rural area in what seems to be Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, or some similar "Deliverance-type" region. Esau's brilliance at bomb making earns him a good living and enough money to ensure Tory's future.

It can't last, however, and Esau finds himself accused of murdering an undercover Federal officer during one of his bombings. Esau makes the necessary deals that keep brother Tory from involvement, acts that bring Esau himself closer to execution.

Andrew Vachss is an accomplished novelist. His Burke series is exceptional. I'm afraid, however, THAT'S HOW I ROLL falls short of the standard. It's simply not exciting or intriguing enough of a narrative to sustain sufficient interest in the story arc. The tenets of the plot also seem too contrived. We're asked to believe in a brilliant yet wheelchair-bound narrator, his younger mentally-challenged but immensely strong brother, and conveniently finding themselves between a pair of bootlegging and drug dealing gangs who are cautious rivals with sufficient "work" for a dilettante bomber? And the further conceit that Esau's physically adept enough to traverse a rugged outdoors in his wheelchair with sufficient stealth to plant bombs? The premise is simply too thin, too speculative to establish believability.

In a big city this might have worked. But in a rural setting there are just too many restrictions on the plot twists and coincidences that we're to accept. All the building blocks seem to fall into place too easily, making the story predictable and not sufficiently engaging.

The narrator's "confession" is also unpersuasive. We're to believe that Esau is a genius but his writing is only at a strong high-school level with numerous small grammatical errors and large gaps in common knowledge. Readable, of course, but not something a genius would create. So even the narrative lacks verisimilitude.

Much as I like other Vachss novels, I'm going to take a pass on this one. Excellent premise and good writing overall, but a somewhat disappointing exposition.

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